Night draws in, and the children go obediently about their routine chores. Little John goes about closing curtains and blinds, young Rory lights the lamps, and the girls, always so much more careful and trustworthy, make the hot cocoa, set out the biscuits and bring the tray through. Then, as every night, the four sit in a row in front of the television, keeping as quiet as they possibly can in order to escape notice. The quieter they are the later they get to stay up. But, as ever, when the time comes and the television schedule pits CSI and Holby City against each other, Rory and Molly begin to argue over the remote control, and any chance they might have had disappears.
Uncle Sherlock, head and shoulders first, leans in through the door of his study. "My word, are you children still here?" From another room, somebody delicately clears their throat, "I mean, up?"
Amelia, eyes narrowed to slits, glares at Molly. It was all Molly's fault. It always is. Silly, mousy girl. Molly notices and sticks out her tongue.
"Stop that at once," Uncle Sherlock snaps, finally stepping into the living room. Not for the first time, John stares up in blatant awe, wondering how he manages to balance all his spindly, stilt-like self. Then, from that other room, the Uncle enters, his face smeared with motor oil, his hat askew, and John gives up wondering. "Off to bed, all of you. You should be sleeping by now."
Like any other night, they gather at the collective leather shoes of their guardians (though this means giving up eye contact, or breaking their little necks to get it) to beg. "Please", and "Ten more minutes," and "Make her let me watch Holby", and "He pulled my hair". And the leaning is towards the Uncle, well known to be the more persuadable of the two. The keening is tailored to his ear and the hugging is stronger around his knees, and when dear, sweet Amelia steps away from all of this and sits sadly on the edge of the sofa, looking down at her knees, this is all for his benefit.
The uncles, far above all this, roll their eyes at each other, laugh softly to themselves and relent.
"Not a chance," says Uncle Sherlock first. He goes to the door of their bedroom and throws it open, counts them in, one-two-three-four, as the Uncle shepherd them ahead. "You've stayed up terribly late already, and probably eaten far too many biscuits and been terribly naughty while the Uncle and I have been trying to work."
"We weren't naughty!" John protests.
"We only had one biscuit each," Rory joins, and they step up together, defending the girls. The Uncle makes a show of stepping over to the tray by the fire guard and inspecting the crumbs.
"They're right, you know. These are the crumbs of exactly four digestive biscuits."
Not wanting to be outdone by the boys, Amelia lifts up her pointy little chin, sticks her nose distastefully into the air and mutters, "See? We did everything right."
"We did everything right," Molly echoes, "and you still say such terrible things."
Rory adds, "We're really offended."
And John just sullenly grumps, arms folded tight around a stuffed tiger. The toy has, in itself, gone soft at the neck from such treatment.
Still, each of them has gone to their particular bunk and is climbing in. This is the way it happens every night. Their arguments are a matter of course, and bedtime couldn't happen without them, but the uncles will always get their way in the end.
There is, however, one more thing that has to happen. Each night, one of the children arrives independently at the idea, a new approach, a new stroke of genius, but always with the same result. Tonight, it seems, it is Rory who is destined to prolong their waking hours. Maybe it's the profound injustice of being made to miss Holby City again, when Molly gets to watch CSI on Uncle Sherlock's iPhone anytime she asks. Or maybe it's the fact that he's been asking for a proper bed every birthday and Christmas since he got big (and he's eight now, so that was easily three years ago), and he still has to lie in the bottom bunk listening to John roll about on the top. John fidgets all the time. All these awful, awful slights are what give him strength, drive him to sit up, straight-backed like a child pharaoh and demand, "We want a story."
An excited, chattering chorus goes up, "Yes" and "But a proper one" and, "But not a case, Uncle Sherlock."
"And not another one about Daleks, because then Molly can't sleep."
"Shut up, Amelia!"
"And not another one about Moriarty-" Nobody gets defensive. Four little heads shake in unison.
Uncle Sherlock, with an exasperated sigh, says, "Then what kind of story do you want?"
That leaves them all a little bit stuck, actually. Usually it's enough just to demand a story and to rule out some of the usual sorts. For a moment, they're mute, confused, looking about at each other. Then the uncles shrug at each other, and the Uncle holds the door open for them to leave the room, and they all cry out at once.
"Well, a story has to have a monster," Rory begins. He started this revolution and the dickens he's not going to lead it.
"And a princess," Amelia adds, jumping on.
John adds a knight, Molly a scenes-of-crimes team, and Rory finishes, re-establishing his power, by stipulating that all four of them must be included.
The voice is so unexpected, so small, that nobody can quite place it at first. Even the Uncle looks twice before finally settling at Uncle Sherlock. "I beg your pardon?"
"Put a pirate in it."
"Just… Look, you started this. You do storytime. I do school runs, you do storytime. I can't do storytime. Just put a bloody pirate in it."
A collective gasp from the children and from the Uncle, "Language, Sherlock."
"It's an important pirate."
"…Why don't you go back to your soil sample analyses, hm?"
He thinks about it. He really does. Then casts dignity to the wind, drops into the armchair by the boys' bunks and says, "No. I'm staying for the story."
And so, with all his rules and inclusions and exclusions so carefully laid out, the Uncle takes the remaining chair, and Amelia's ragdoll to hug, and composes his thoughts for just a moment. "Right then. Are we all sitting comfortably?"
Five voices reply, "Yes, Uncle."
"Then I'll begin."
In a big town called London,
In a small ratty office,
Lives a terrible creature
Called Gaffatt, or Moffiss.
With two awful brains
And a face like a telly
And a laptop computer
That pops out of its belly.
It picks on good heroes
And doubles their woes
By telling the nation
About all of their foes,
Their friends, their adventures,
Their plans and mistakes,
Until all of the heroes cry out
"You naughty old Moffiss!
Just leave me alone!
You terrible Gaffatt!
Can't you leave me alone?"
"You already used 'alone'." The children rise as one to shush Uncle Sherlock's interruption, which leaves him rather offended. "What? He did! That's not good poetic technique."
"Children? Would you like it if Uncle T. S. Sherlock did the next verse or two?"
"Oh, oh, no, not me. Storytime, remember? I don't do storytime."
"Nonsense. You're an expert on poetic technique. Go on. The children want you to, don't you, children?"
John says yes. Molly nods. Amelia and Rory shrug at each other. They're not stupid; Uncle Sherlock has tried storytime and there's a reason why he doesn't do it. "Yeah, okay," they say eventually.
"I make that four of four, Uncle Sherlock-"
"Yes, fine, I'll do the next bit."
"Right. I've done the monster. You do the princess."
Uncle Sherlock sighs. He let this happen. The Uncle laid it out and he walked right into it. Now it had better be good. "I can't believe your making light of the Moffiss Problem," he snipes, just to fill the gap. But the Uncle grins, taps his foot. Tells him to stop stalling. The children are waiting. Where is there even room for a princess in that story? What would the Gaffatt want with a princess? It's a terrible story, you know, he's really rather unimpressed. More holes in it than a madame's alibi, in his opinion-
"Having a bit of trouble, Uncle Sherlock?"
"Oh, do be quiet, Uncle. I'm about to speak."
All by itself
In the office one day,
The Moffiss got bored;
It wanted to play.
But no one would play
With a creature so crude
So the Moffiss did something
It waited 'til dark
And it crept to the street
And it hid in the shadows,
Waiting to meet
A beautiful princess
So sweet and so pure
So the Moffiss would not
Play alone anymore.
He saw one, and snatched her
And stole her away.
But the princess was scared,
And did not want to play.
"Oh, heavens, enough! Stop! You've used the word 'play' far too many times. You're clearly terrible at this!"
"I told you, I don't do storytime."
John, the stuffed tiger dangling, leans over the edge of his bunk to ask, "Who is this princess?"
Amelia coils forward, "Do we know anything about her?"
Uncle Sherlock, looking thoroughly perplexed, shakes his head in dismay. "She's a princess. Pink dresses, tiaras, occasionally kisses a frog or two. You know. Princess." The children and the Uncle groan as one. "What? What's the problem?"
"No originality," Rory scoffs. "What's different about her? Why did the Moffiss want her?"
"If she's a princess," Molly adds, dimly thoughtful, "why was she walking down the street on her own at night?"
"Uncle? Why are the children demanding psychological realism and technical skill to shame Margaret Attwood from their bedtime story?"
The Uncle straightens himself and says with regal pride, "Because they're used to a bit of class, of a night."
"Speaking of which, perhaps you'd better take over for the next verse then-"
Up on his bunk, John's little head sinks on his shoulders. He sighs, grumpily, "What's the point? She's just a normal princess, so now he's just going to have to be a normal knight and he's just going to have to save her like anybody else's story…" The other children nod along, agreeing, just as disappointed.
"It doesn't matter," Amelia says. Rolls over on her side and pulls the blanket up under her chin. "We can try again tomorrow." John too gives up, lies down. Rory is crushed. This was his night, his idea, his turn to get them a great story out of the two useless uncles and he's failed. He sits back into his pillows, eyes glaring and glazed, arms folded. And poor little Molly, who always knows so well when the others are suffering, curls up tightly at the top of her bunk, chewing her fingernails.
In the dark and the damning silence, the Uncle eyes Uncle Sherlock, shaking his head. By gestures and movements of the eyes they discuss the situation they find themselves in, moving quickly on from blaming each other for it to finding a course of action. They can't leave it like this. Quite aside from the guilt, it'll make breakfasts and school difficult tomorrow morning.
Then, in a whisper, just loud enough to be heard, Uncle Sherlock makes his best plan known. He hisses to the Uncle, as though he thinks the children are asleep, "Well I had to do something! You were about to tell them everything-"
"Sherlock, it's a bedtime story. They would have thought nothing of it."
"They're smart children!" Uncle Sherlock lifts the Uncle by the shoulder and ushers him out of the room. Pulls the door to but not closed, and lifts his voice. "Do you have any idea the danger, the intrigue, the adventure they would find themselves in if they even suspected that the Moffiss was real, Uncle?"
"They could never take the Gaffatt on alone, Uncle Sherlock. Why, four children could never defeat the Gaffatt. Everybody knows that that operation requires a soldier, a doctor, a policewoman and a scenes-of-crime officer…"
Uncle Sherlock begins to laugh, and so it is now that they finally have to close the door completely. The Uncle stands with his ear to it and listens carefully to the whispering, the excitement, to the sound of children they'll never be able to wake up for school in the morning, but who are happy. Children who, for now, know no fear, are protected. Children for whom the Moffiss is yet a fairytale monster. And that, for now, is all that their guardians can ask.
They return, each of them, to their separate studies. Not a word passes between them, only an understanding.
Deliver me, my friend, from the Gaffatt, and if I fall, only know that I stand with you still, and both of us before the children. Our lives for them, in their defence, and for each other. Deliver me, my friend, from the Moffiss.